11th October 2007

Dutch-Burghers  and mythmaking
Creating  and nurturing the myth of ‘European’ purity of descent

      By J.B. Müller

      The male ancestors of that community of people known and called the‘Burghers’ originated from the European continent from the beginnings of the 16th century. That is an incontestable fact of history.  They were, broadly, ‘Europeans’ drawn from the assorted mixture of ethnicities that inhabited that continent at that time.  However, they did not have a stereotyped appearance and ranged from the pale pink, blue-eyed and blond-haired to the swarthy, dark-skinned, black-haired and black-eyed types found around the Mediterranean coast.   Indeed, there were tall and blond Swedes, Lithuanians, and Russians as well as Greeks, Maltese, and Italians.   The first wave were from the Iberian Peninsula, that is, modern Portugal  and Spain, and it should be remembered that the southern portions of the  peninsula were occupied by the North African Arabs for hundreds of years during  which Arab, Berber, Taureg, Jewish and Negro genes (DNA) mixed with those of  both the Portuguese and the Spanish.   Several hundreds of years before that, Europe up to the banks of the  Rhine and Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall were all part of the Roman Empire and  the other boundaries of that empire encompassed parts of Arabia, Syria, Egypt,  Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Greece, Romania, and the southern parts of  Middle Europe.  Rome’s legions were drawn from all these parts of its empire and certainly included Asians and Africans.  These soldiers like all soldiers and sailors  everywhere, wined, dined and wenched and added their genes to the largely Celtic pool then spread all over the European continent.  All of this contributed to an amazing racial mixture before their descendants ventured out of that continent in the 16th century.
       Portugal was a sparsely populated country of mainly poor peasants but from the latter part of the 15th century its ports teemed with all sorts seeking employment on its caravels and galleons then beginning the great exploratory voyages initiated by Prince Henry, the Navigator.  Others were seeking to escape from something or the other, usually deadly, such as the horrible Inquisition or impositions by their secular and spiritual lords. You could be sure that not many rich and famous manned these ships except perhaps as adventurers and merchants seeking wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Therefore, these ships were manned by those classified as ‘riff-raff,’ the homeless flotsam and jetsam that inhabit every port and when even these were not available, the authorities quickly emptied the jails.   This does not mean that these people were never-do-wells or criminals.  They were unfortunate enough to fall on very hard times in a day and age when life wasn’t easy. Then, mortality was high not only from diseases and draconian discipline but also from the horrendous storms at sea.   Some authorities estimate that as much as 60 per cent of the ships that set out never made it back to their home ports!   One should also remember that all these voyages were into the Great Unknown—navigating with crude instruments.   Landfall was not always a welcome blessing as the native peoples encountered were fearful, suspicious and distrustful of these peculiar strangers.  This was also compounded by the inability to communicate meaningfully.
       This scenario, with some improvements with the passing of time and somewhat better knowledge, was repeated when the Dutch ventured forth to create their seaborne empire around the world. Holland, too, was a thinly inhabited country that thrived on trading.  The fat and comfortable Burghers were loath to leave their counting houses and trading chambers for obviously dangerous voyages into the unknown.   However, history, time and circumstance played into their hands as Europe was convulsed with wars, dynastic struggles, and the religious wars that erupted with the advent of the Reformation.  These struggles, of one sort or another, had refugees from persecution streaming into countries that provided refuge, such as Holland. It now had an abundant pool of manpower to make the most of for its forays to grab hold of the Portuguese monopoly of valuable commodities.   Thus, the Heeren XVII  recruited Walloons, Flemings, French,  Germans, Swiss, Frisians, Danes, Luxembourgians, Swedes, Lithuanians, Russians,  Poles, Hungarians, Swiss, Italians, Britons, Irish, Spanish, and Portuguese to  serve the Veerening Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, the world’s first transnational trading corporation  established in 1602.  This heterogeneous collection of ethnicities went to man the crews of its vessels and formed its defence forces.  Many of these only possessed the clothes on their backs and were, perhaps, the poorest of the Poor.  You can be sure that most of them were illiterate, didn’t possess any family names or surnames as we know them today, and couldn’t even spell those names properly.  Thus, it was left to the Dutch boekhouders or record-keepers to write down their names with wide variations in spelling!  Many of the Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity were given identifying names that were offensive and insulting and had no connection to genuine ancestral names in the countries of origin.  This was done in the baseless belief that they were guilty of deicide—that is, killing Jesus Christ—God!  It should be remembered that the naming  conventions of the time named people after their ancestral villages, their  occupation or vocation, some physical peculiarity or resemblance to something,  or merely as ‘son of’ and some names were made ‘Dutch’ to resemble  Dutch-sounding names much like some names were ‘Anglicized’ during British  times. It should also be mentioned here that the language of the intelligentsia at that time was Latin and all educated people spoke it and wrote it.   In order to escape being denounced for their  Judaic faith by the ‘righteous’ Christians, many ‘volunteered’ to become either crew or soldiers on board the Dutch ships leaving the Netherlands during that  period.
        Many of those who arrived on this Island during the Portuguese period (1505-1656) and the following Dutch period (1656-1796) chose to settle rather than go back to a Europe full with the continuing danger of persecution. They settled and took Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, Malayalee, and Negro, women as wives or common-law wives (mistresses).   Naturally, they had children within and without the benefit of wedlock or ‘holy matrimony’ as it is now called.  It should also be acknowledged that few European women, if any, ventured  to embark upon what were still dangerous voyages on ships that were, by today’s  standards, no better than small fishing trawlers. Generally, these were the wives of high officials, merchants, and the ubiquitous onder-koopmen junior merchants or buyers.  Through the natural process of mixed marriages a coloured or hybrid population slowly grew in the coastal towns of Sri Lanka, notably Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Hambantota, Tangalle, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Colombo, and  Negombo.  Some few descendants of the Europeans also intermarried with the coloured population of mixed origin and it is from this heterogeneous gene pool that a political community or class of persons was designated by the British who referred to them as ‘Burghers.’  During Dutch rule, the Company’s employees (or servants) were designated ‘compagnie-dienaars’ and the others were ‘vrijburgers’ or Free Burghers.  Many British [English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish] soldiers, sailors, and ‘shoppies’ also married cinnamon-complexioned Burgher girls, contributing to the population of fair-skinned Burghers who believed themselves to be ‘pure’ European!  In the 19th century, under the  British, educational opportunities available trough the missionary schools were  taken advantage of by Burgher parents who saw the wisdom of a good education  and secure employment in the developing public services being established by  the British.  The British also saw an advantage in employing this hybrid community that they placed between themselves and the heterogeneous indigenous population. Whatever some older members of the Burgher Community might fondly  imagine about the ‘good old days’ the British saw to it that there was a ‘line’  that no Burgher or other native on the Island was permitted to cross and this taboo was enforced on stringently British terms:  As the imperial Rulers and the subservient  Ruled.  Indeed, ‘natives and dogs’ were not allowed into their clubs and the signs were only removed post-1956!  Many Burghers who enlisted in British regiments were astonished at the racial discrimination practiced by the British even though some of them were equally ‘white.’
     As an imperial power with a globe-girdling empire the British were a relatively benign power and were inclined towards liberalism and the ideas that flowed from the Enlightenment.  However, all shades of opinion were tolerated and freely expressed as long as it was recognized that Britain was a leading power that ruled the waves—and she brooked no challenge from any other.
     Then, the class system was well-entrenched with the aristocracy at the top and the commons at the bottom and everyone knew what his place was within this time-hallowed structure.  This was also practiced among the Burghers with the fairest-skinned Dutch-Burghers at the apex of the pyramid and the darker-skinned Portuguese Burghers at the base.  But this was a ‘class’ distinction  and it was only when ethnicity became the basis for representation that the  issue of ‘race’ came to the fore and the Burghers began thinking of themselves  as a separate and distinct ‘race.’  This new misconception relegated those at the bottom of the pile, that is, the so-called Portuguese Burghers to be part of the indigenous population.  When Burgher leaders were questioned on what  constituted a ‘Burgher’ racially, they were hard put to come up with a clear  definition because each and every family was mixed to some degree with the  indigenous population and Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay, and other Oriental  ancestors on the distaff side that were hardly acknowledged.  This was in the 19th century.  In the 20th many families had their indigenous or Oriental ancestors on the female side quietly erased and the mythmaking began in earnest.  Many Burgher genealogists or amateur genealogists actively participated in this exercise to ‘Europeanize’ and sanitize Burgher
      In this day and age we know that the concept of ‘race’ is not scientific but entirely religio-cultural.  It has no basis whatsoever in human biology where there is only one ‘race:’ the human race inhabiting the Planet Earth and all such so-called ‘races’ are mixed to a greater or lesser degree.  The three broad types are Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid with many sub-types—but all are distinctly human sharing the same blood, or, to put it another way, “of one blood.”  The mixing of these types have  produced hybrid communities all over the world and the mixing goes on apace as  people free themselves from archaic and unscientific religio-cultural taboos.  Therefore, to insist that any one or more races are ‘pure’ is specious at best.  It follows that there are no ‘pure’ Dutch-Burghers [or for that matter, Portuguese Burghers].  All the male ancestors originated in the European Fatherland and domiciled themselves in the Sri Lankan Motherland, which provided the mothers and, in the process, produced the Burghers—a synthesis of two different types or sub-types.  Whilst the Burghers are a rather  heterogeneous genetic sub-type their religion, culture, and language belongs to  what we loosely term ‘Western’ as distinct from ‘Oriental’ even though Burgher  culture has adopted many Oriental traits, habits, mannerisms, and attitudes  over the almost 500-year period of their sojourn on the Island of Sri  Lanka.  For example, speaking English does not make them British, having a German surname does not make some of them  German, making and eating bolo d’amor  or love cake does not make them Portuguese, following a remarkable Palestinian  prophet from the land of Judah does not make them Jewish.  Likewise, wearing a sarong and cotton vest at home with chappals on the feet does not make them Sinhalese, Tamil, or Moor.  The Burghers do all these things with an easy-going friendliness and without even a shadow of racial prejudice.  If all this be true it is illogical why any Burgher should try to establish that he or she belongs to a separate and distinct ‘race’ with pretensions to superiority?  The sooner some Burghers with ‘Bourbon’ attitudes shed those and reconcile themselves to the fact that they are a hybrid people of mixed origin, the better for the Community.
      Mythmaking may perhaps or might be comfortable for some but the fact is that the myth created does not stand scrutiny and unbiased investigation.  When it is exposed as without any foundation in fact, the shame is doubled and the family with false airs and graces [about ancestry] stands discredited.
      Burghers must get real about who they really are; they should know their history and heritage; they should disabuse their minds of myths and prejudices fostered and promoted by the ignorant and uninformed, and in objectively appreciating the ground realities that now obtain, integrate themselves into mainstream society as fully co-equal citizens of Sri Lanka. 
      In  conclusion let me say that the Burghers are a most unique ethno-socio-cultural  community [a mosaic made up of different pieces, different colours and  textures] with a rich and varied heritage drawing its stimulation from not one  but two well-loaded sources:  One European  and the other Asian and this is simply tremendous because of its indescribable diversity.  As a unique community with a dual and complex Euro-Asian heritage, Burghers have much to offer their compatriots in developing a healthy world-view shorn of fallacious beliefs about racial superiority, in Aryan supremacist ideas, and ethno-religio-linguistic majoritarianism on the one hand and the enervating victim syndrome of those who have been led to believe that they are ‘second-class’ citizens or unwanted aliens.   This also makes the Burghers potential ‘bridge-builders’ between diametrically different socio-cultural streams.   This is largely unrealized potential that could be channeled and let loose, especially in the Burgher homeland of Sri Lanka now sorely in need of reconciliation and healing between its other estranged communities. The Burghers could work towards negating the polarization that has taken place since the Donoughmore Constitution was introduced by the British in 1931.  
      The  heterogeneity of the Burghers is their greatest strength and asset in a shrinking world and the role of peacemaker fits like a glove with their shared Judaeo-Christian heritage, their ability to communicate internationally, their  connexions in the worldwide Diaspora, and  their intrinsic ability to smile, make friends, and crack a joke and to live  and let live.



23rd July 2007


A Commentary on the Burgher Birthrate By J.B. Müller

       The Burgher Community in Sri Lanka faces extinction! In less than another 50 years the Burghers of Sri Lanka would be found only on the Internet and, perhaps, in a few books and in the archives of newspapers. Surprised? Shocked to learn that you are on the endangered species list? You may well be.

       The solution to this problem is to be found only in the bedroom! That’s because the net birthrate of the Burghers is abysmally low on the one hand and both the net emigration rate and death, on the other hand, is working against Burgher numbers. Whilst the population of Sri Lanka has been growing since the first census in 1871, the numbers of the Burghers has always been below 50,000 souls. Burgher numbers have not been growing with the rest of the population. Further, Burgher girls have been constantly marrying outside the Community and their offspring have been quietly assimilated into other, non-Burgher ethnic communities. Burgher boys, too, have been marrying outside the Community and the process of assimilation (and eventual extinction) goes on apace.

        The leadership of the Burgher Community must take concrete steps to encourage the Burghers to procreate and in order to do this, for Burghers to marry members of their own community in increasing numbers to ensure that their numbers do not dwindle to the point of extinction!

        Indeed, economic factors impinge heavily on this suggestion; however, there is a way out through focused and concentrated education and training to enhance the economic status of the Burghers. It is quite apparent that the Burgher population is ageing rapidly and that few younger Burghers are to be seen in any significant numbers at any gathering.

        Economic uplift and development mean that economic status would improve raising living standards to the level that Burghers could afford to have larger families. In my own family, there was a member of the Ceylon Civil Service who had 24 children out of two marriages, 16 + 8. My father was the eldest son out of 15 children. This is not to say that Burghers go for such large families but that they should have at least five children to replace the ageing and those who die every year.       

        Burgher leaders have also come to an impasse over which to count as part of the Burgher population -- a question necessitated by the increasingly porous nature of Sri Lankan society and the Community's generally high rates of intermarriage. Are those counted as Burghers only those whose male parent is a Burgher of original European ancestry or whose female parent was of original European ancestry also? For example, should an individual raised in a cultural milieu that is non-Burgher be considered a Burgher if he or she had one Burgher parent? What if one born with one Burgher parent and raised in a non-Burgher cultural milieu asserts identification with the Burgher Community? What about the increasingly common situation of a non-Burgher not married to but living in the same household with a Burgher man or woman? What about the children and the grandchildren of intermarried Burghers? If they were not raised as Burghers, should they nevertheless be considered part of the Burgher Community?

        If there is any debate within the Burgher Community over absolute numbers, there is far wider agreement on the patterns of behavior within the Burgher population. Two trends are particularly telling. First, in terms of median age, Burghers are older than other Sri Lankans. Second, even by the most cautious figures, at least half of all marriages involving a Burgher are to non-Burghers. Neither trend suggests demographic vitality.

        There is considerable evidence pointing to the relatively advanced age of the Sri Lanka Burgher population. Among Sri Lankans of all kinds Burghers have the fewest number of siblings, the smallest household size, and the lowest number of children under eighteen at home.

        Burghers marry later than other Sri Lankans with the greatest disparities occurring in the age group between twenty-five and thirty-four. For Burgher women in particular, late marriage means lower rates of fertility compared with other Sri Lankan women. The fertility gap is especially enormous among Burgher under the age of thirty-five; even though the gap narrows considerably over the course of the next ten years, at no point do Burgher women attain the fertility levels of their non-Burgher peers or bear children in numbers sufficient to offset population losses from natural causes.

        It is true that low fertility rates among Burgher women are not a new phenomenon. Economic advancement, the availability of birth control, and rising educational achievement caused Burgher fertility to start dropping as long ago as the middle of the 20th. Century. Nor, as is well known, is the phenomenon limited to Burghers, or to Sri Lanka. In the U.S.; in contemporary Europe and Japan, it has reached proportions that threaten catastrophe to those nations.

         Still, Burgher women in Sri Lanka are significantly less fertile than their other Sri Lankan counterparts. This fact is attested to by the significantly better rates of educational achievement among Burgher women, who spend significantly more time than their non-Burgher peers in learning employable skills. For many of them, still more childless years follow as they work to advance their careers.

        Add to all this the losses sustained through the high rate of intermarriage. Once upon a time, it was thought by at least some sociologists that intermarriage could prove to be a demographic boon. In the aggregate, said the optimists, it would take fewer intermarried Burghers producing children identifying themselves as Burghers to result in a net gain. But nothing of the sort has happened.

        Not only does the birth rate among intermarried Burghers tend to be even lower than among those who marry within the Community. Nearly all of the children raised within intermarried families go on to marry non-Burghers themselves, and only a small percentage of these raise their own children as Burghers.

        As for their links with Burgher life, only a minority of children raised by dual-religion parents identify themselves with Christianity or with the institutions of the Burgher Community. In two generations, the process of assimilation would be complete, erasing the unique ethnic, social and cultural character of the Burghers. Although a number of adult children of intermarriage do express "somewhat" of a connection with the Burgher component of their identity, such feelings are rarely translated into behavior. Like their parents, most tend not to affiliate with a church, contribute to Burgher causes, or participate in a Burgher event nearly as much as do the adult children of those who have married within the Community.

         Advocating larger families would certainly beg the question of how to support a larger family when Burghers are (like everyone else) battling with an ever rising cost-of-living? The answer to that lies in better training for better-paid employment and in being competitive in the sense of doing better things with the resources we already possess.

         As mentioned earlier, the key to increasing Burgher numbers is first, education and training and second, getting in the bedroom and working [with renewed zeal] on what needs to be done and deriving a lot [!!!!] of pleasure in the process! Believe me; every support should be given to Burghers to have larger families. The other part lies in the hands of the leaders who should motivate the Burghers to do what needs be done and to pursue education and training with single-minded purpose. Or? Or we’ll be added to the list of EXTINCT communities before 2050 and that’s an appalling prospect!


Tue 10 July 2007.

                                                  THE BURGHERS - 60 YEARS IN AUSTRALIA.

        I send herewith material for publication in your esteemed journal, on what I am sure would be nostalgic to some of the older Burghers in Sri Lanka, and perhaps interesting history to the  few younger generation  of Burghers in our Island.

        To me the 60th anniversary of Burgher settlement in Australia has mixed feelings.  I do remember the exodus of Burghers in the good ole days.  It was more or less a fad within the Burgher community to apply and emigrate to Australia. Those emigrating were in search of greener pastures in a land they heard of termed "down under", but a land they perhaps knew little or nothing about. That they emigrated into the unknown, began to and have continued to make a recognisable and  praiseworthy impact "down under" must surely speak volumes for the talent and capabilities, of the Burghers, in more ways than one.  

         Some of the stories of the Burghers who emigrated in those early years is amazing. The common saying among migrants was "we're going for our children's sake".  History knows many Burgher migrants held top notch positions in the Mercantile, Banking, Government  sectors, others in the Medical sector; names too numerous to mention.  But through the years what I have never come to terms with is why did these Burghers really go.  If they put it on the Sinhala only issue, that would have been all the more reason to remain in Ceylon as it was then, bond together, hard and tight,  consolidate and raise the issue.  Together they had the capability to take our community to unprecedented heights.  History can reveal what the Burghers meant and contributed to Ceylon as it were then.   But instead, the P & O passenger liners  "Oriana",  'Oransay",  "Chusan" and the regular caller "Canberra", among others, sailed from the Colombo harbour with monotonous regularity carriying  away our Burgher folk. 

       If only they had stayed  - who knows what might have been !!! 

       Many of those who migrated have since grouped together to form Associations, with the accent on helping the needy Burghers back home. The Burgher Association of Australia (BAA) is one that stands out.  In my time as Hony. Secretary and Chairman Welfare of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, the BAA was one of the principal donor Associatons, and  I believe, still continues to support by way of sponsoring  the education of Burgher children over here. 

       The only evil I can feel with the emigration of the Burgher folk is that Ceylon lost top notch personalities, but it is sad to record how children have parted with parents - with the prospect of never seeing them again, and relations, and close friends became separated.  Ceylon's loss must surely be Australia's gain.

        Having first hand knowledge and experience of the magnanimous contribution the BAA makes to Burgher children back home, I can only say may God bless those who deliver, (Blessed is the Giver), and may the BAA continue to flourish in all its endeavours for another 60 years and more.


Neville Overlunde


'Rhythm & Hues' excellent!

Please convey my appreciation for the excellent dance - the organization and music were excellent.  How about we repeat it for New Year's Eve?

It will be a hit with the Burghers coming home for Christmas and a great way to publicize the Association.

Leonie Solomons
via e-mail


Reply to 'Facts and Fallacies...'

My observations on J B Muller's article, 'Facts, Fallacies and Food for Thought':

  1. I feel the Dutch origins are not adequately magnified in your article.

  2. Our ideals for the future:

Where we need to go from now on.

Who are the right authorities to tap our culture and strength harnessing the total Burgher Community in Sri Lanka?

Giving legitimacy and recognition to the Burgher Association.

Getting the Sri Lankan Burgher diaspora who are spread all over the world to give back to their community in Sri Lanka, opportunities for the under-privileged children/families to get on their feet.

We should work very closely with the Dutch/Portuguese Embassies.

We should liaison with the joint Dutch - Sri Lanka Business Councils.

Finally, Carl Muller's article in 'The Sunday Times' of 20th October 2002, titled 'Sri Lankan Burghers, not Dutch' should also be looked at objectively.

Wayne Jansz
via e-mail


Index of Burgher Volunteers

I write to ask WHY does not Maxi Rozairo prepare an index of Burgher Volunteers who are able to teach English?  This could be compiled by sending a few questionnaires here and there, first among the memberships of the Burgher Association.   Listing teachers and others.

Another thing, don't you think Burgher children who want to join the English stream in Schools where it is being introduced should be automatically taken, without exams, as English is their mother-tongue and this is their right of which they were deprived by unjust Governments since the "Sinhala Only Act"?

All the best to your endeavours,

Maureen Senevirathne (nee Milhuisein)

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